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Fragile Frontier: Democracy’s Growing Vulnerability in Central and Southeastern Europe

by Christopher Walker and Sylvana Habdank–Kołaczkowska


The failure of virtually any of the countries of Eurasia to shed old governance habits and end monopolies on political and economic power has been one of the greatest disappointments of the past two decades. Regimes in countries as diverse as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, and Uzbekistan have taken steps—some brutal, others more subtle—to adapt to new circumstances and maintain power. It was widely understood from the outset, however, that these countries faced far steeper climbs toward democratic governance, given their far less enviable starting points, than the former Soviet satellites of Central Europe and the successor states of the former Yugoslavia.

It should therefore be all the more worrisome that the very countries which have achieved the greatest success in the past two decades are now displaying serious vulnerabilities in their still young democratic systems. Over the past five years, Nations in Transit findings have shown a clear backsliding in key governance institutions across this subset of countries.

Hungary’s precipitous descent is the most glaring example among the newer European Union (EU) members. Its deterioration over the past five years has affected institutions that form the bedrock of democratically accountable systems, including independent courts and media. Hungary’s negative trajectory predated the current government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, but his drive to concentrate power over the past two years has forcefully propelled the trend. In this edition of Nations in Transit, which covers calendar 2011, the country suffered declines in every category, a rare occurrence in the history of the report.

To be sure, the swift dismantling of democratic checks has been made easier by Hungary’s particular political circumstances, among them a weak opposition and an illiberal ruling party with an unusual parliamentary supermajority. But the Hungarian example has raised new questions about the vulnerabilities of other young democracies in the region, where the combination of poorly rooted traditions of democratic practice, resilient networks of corruption and clientelism, low levels of public trust and engagement, and shaky economic conditions have hampered the achievement of indelible democratic reforms.

In addition to Hungary, five of the region’s EU member states—Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia—have experienced net declines over the past five years in the category of independent media. Other categories that have featured erosion during this period are electoral process, civil society, and national democratic governance. Stagnation and decline have also become more apparent in the parts of Southeastern Europe that lie outside the EU. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, and Macedonia have all suffered declines in national democratic governance over the past five years, driven in part by the overlap between business and political interests and the nagging problem of organized crime. And the media landscape of this area has been adversely affected by factors including nontransparent media ownership and the physical intimidation of journalists.

Meanwhile, Ukraine, an erstwhile democratic hopeful that holds a pivotal geographical and political position between the EU and Russia, has likewise experienced a sharp, multiyear decline that has accelerated over the past two years. In this edition, its scores have worsened in five of the seven Nations in Transit categories. As in Hungary, its neighbor to the west, the current authorities in Ukraine have undertaken a broad assault on institutional accountability and transparency. Most conspicuously, President Viktor Yanukovych’s ad­ministration has targeted the country’s already weak judicial independence. The courts are increasingly becoming an instrument for attacking the political opposition and otherwise pursuing the preferences of the executive branch and its supporters. The encroachment on the judiciary, however, is only one part of a wider effort; the authorities in Ukraine are seeking to impose dominance over other critical institutions ranging from academia to the news media. The crossover to digital broadcasting—planned for completion in 2015—offers the regime an opportunity to acquire systematic control over the flow of information, especially via television stations from which most Ukrainians receive news and information.

Both Orbán and Yanukovych have been accused of pursuing the “Putinization” of their countries. This is ironic, given that Putinism in Russia itself has been largely discredited over the past year, as ordinary Russians increasingly seek the very guarantees of government accountability and transparency that the leaders of Hungary and Ukraine are busy dismantling. Since the onset of public protests in December 2011, portions of Russian society have signaled an interest in reclaiming the public space that has been systematically taken from them over the past 12 years under Vladimir Putin. But the Kremlin is clearly disinclined to enact reforms that would meet the changing societal demands, setting the stage for a potentially lengthy battle of wills. To date, the state’s ability to both coerce and coopt has allowed it to prevail, but it may be forced to lean more heavily on coercion as Putin’s extensive campaign promises run up against budgetary realities and Russia’s dependence on high world energy prices.

Main Findings and Notable Trends

  • Reverberations of the Arab Spring in Authoritarian States: The overall democracy scores of most Eurasian countries either declined or remained unchanged. Fearing the demonstration effect of the uprisings in the Arab Middle East, authoritarian regimes in Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan cracked down hard on protesters in 2011, using the full weight of their pliant judiciaries to preempt and punish dissent. In Russia, where fraudulent parliamentary elections and the promise of a pre­­determined presidential succession sparked widespread demonstrations in December, the authorities refrained from massive crackdowns against civil society. However, the regime continued to use the judiciary as a means of intimidating and persecuting activists, and to defend or deny law enforcement’s role in the 2009 death of whistleblowing lawyer Sergey Magnitsky.
  • Deteriorating Judicial Independence in All Subregions: Declines were most numerous in the judicial framework and independence category in 2011, appearing in every subregion covered by Nations in Transit. A total of eight countries—Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine—regressed on this indicator. The largest declines occurred in Albania, where the assassination of a respected judge highlighted the undue pressures on judicial independence; in Hungary, where a major overhaul of the judicial administration cleared the way for more direct political manipulation of the courts; and in Ukraine, where the Yanukovych administration presided over the use of the law enforcement system to persecute political opponents and the increasing intrusion of the security service into civic life.
  • Democratic Declines Gain Momentum in Ukraine and Hungary: In an alarmingly short period of time, the Yanukovych government in Ukraine has closed the democratic space that was opened after the Orange Revolution of late 2004. Ukraine’s ratings worsened in five categories for developments in 2011, with a steep, half-point decline in judicial framework and independence. For the second consecutive year, Hungary—once among the strongest performers in the study—experienced sharp declines in four categories, including half-point drops in electoral process, national democratic governance, and judicial framework and independence. Hungary’s media climate also grew more restrictive thanks to new legislation that gives government appointees considerable power to limit freedom of expression and punish perceived violations.
  • Challenges to Reform in the Balkans: Critical reforms stalled in nearly all Balkan states in 2011. While Croatia demonstrated its commitment to winning EU membership by cooperating with high-profile anticorruption investigations, four other Balkan countries experienced declines in the areas of electoral process, national democratic governance, judicial framework and independence, and independent media. Poorly conducted elections in Albania and Kosovo revealed the fragility of electoral reform in the absence of judicial independence and accountability. In Macedonia, the coalition government led by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski pursued a politically fraught tax case against the owner of a leading media enterprise, and took advantage of a months-long parliamentary boycott by the opposition to pass controversial legislation that, among other things, created more seats in the parliament to represent Macedonians living abroad, a group that consistently votes for the ruling coalition.

Eastern Europe and Eurasia

Large-scale antigovernment protests across the Arab world during 2011 helped to inspire demonstrations in a number of authoritarian countries in the former Soviet region. Security forces responded aggressively, using brute force and harsh legal penalties to deter further unrest. By year’s end, these methods had apparently succeeded in squashing open dissent, but the underlying grievances in these societies remain unaddressed, meaning more instability is undoubtedly in store.

In Azerbaijan, opposition and youth activists organized a string of anti­government demonstrations in March and April 2011. Due to government intimidation and preemptive arrests, most of the events were sparsely attended. Those with significant public participation ended in mass arrests, followed by a series of deeply flawed trials in which both defendants and their lawyers were subjected to threats. The suppression of Belarus’s political opposition after a fraudulent presidential election in December 2010 continued in 2011, as hundreds of participants in and alleged instigators of postelection protests were harassed, detained, and sentenced. In June and July, the regime responded with extreme force to a new series of demonstrations that adopted deliberately innocuous tactics like wordless clapping. This second wave of repression, accompanied by the politically motivated arrest and sentencing of well-known human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, had driven Belarus’s remaining activists deep underground by year’s end.

In Kazakhstan, protests emerged in response to brutal working conditions, a high cost of living, and weak labor protections in the country’s oilfields. Central and local authorities alike ignored the labor dispute until police opened fire on a crowd of unarmed protesters in December, killing at least 15 people and drawing international attention. Although the government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev promised an independent investigation into the events, no such inquiry had been initiated at year’s end, and Natalya Sokolova, the union lawyer representing 2,000 fired oilfield workers, remained in prison for “inciting social discord.” (Sokolova’s sentence was commuted from six years’ imprisonment to a three-year suspended term in March 2012. She was released, but is barred from “civic” activity or holding office in a public association.)

Throughout 2011, the state-controlled broadcast media in Russia worked to associate the Arab uprisings with violence and disorder so as to dissuade the domestic audience from pursuing their own demands for political reform. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in December in response to fraud in the parliamentary elections and Putin’s plans to return to the presidency, which raised the prospect of 12 more years without a meaningful rotation of power. Although the Russian authorities refrained from massive crackdowns against protesters, there were episodes of police brutality, and the politically controlled judiciary continued to persecute activists and cover up official abuses.

In Ukraine, President Yanukovych further concentrated power in the executive branch while going after his political opponents with the help of the judicial system. In December, the parliament introduced legal changes that broadened the powers of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) to investigate actions that fall under the criminal category of “mass riots.” A deterioration in media pluralism was also in evidence, as journalists and editors treaded more carefully around politically sensitive topics. Ukraine’s overall democracy score is rapidly approaching its pre–Orange Revolution level.

The year was not without successes for the former Soviet region. In Moldova, the media environment continued to benefit from an increased diversity of outlets and a more professional public broadcaster. And the introduction of e-government services in Georgia and Armenia was seen as a positive step in the effort to address low-level corruption.

Kyrgyzstan’s October presidential election was the freest and fairest in Central Asia’s history, ushering in the subregion’s first peaceful transfer of power since the end of Soviet rule. The country’s media also showed a greater degree of independence and pluralism in 2011. However, such positive developments continue to be tempered by the impunity of those responsible for bloody ethnic clashes that broke out in the south of the country in June 2010. Hope for a durable democratic transition ultimately depends on a successful reconciliation process with Kyrgyzstan’s sizeable ethnic Uzbek minority.

New EU States

On the whole, the 10 new EU member states have performed very well on Nations in Transit democracy indicators, but reform efforts have flagged in recent years. Elections are free and fair, news media generally operate without interference, and civil society is able to actively participate in policy discussions. However, the role of money in politics and economically weakening media sectors are among the issues that should raise concern about the depth and durability of democracy in the region. The ongoing economic crisis caused marked instability among governments in Central and Eastern Europe in 2011, as ruling parties struggled to remain in office while imposing unpopular austerity measures. Three new EU states—Latvia, Slovakia, and Slovenia—experienced either the fall of the government or the dissolution of parliament in 2011; the Romanian government and the Lithuanian parliament narrowly escaped the same fate. Such disturbances, though within the bounds of normal political procedure, ultimately stalled progress on reforms and prevented several countries from further consolidating their democratic transitions. Meanwhile, political and economic pressures on the media grew stronger, especially in Hungary, where the Orbán government continued its consolidation of power over nominally independent regulatory and judicial bodies.

In Latvia, frustration with the state of the economy crystallized around the issue of corruption, symbolized by the presence of several powerful and reputedly corrupt “oligarchs” in the parliament. The legislature’s refusal to assist a highly publicized anticorruption investigation by lifting the immunity of a wealthy and influential deputy gave outgoing president Valdis Zatlers an opportunity to call a referendum on the parliament’s dissolution, which passed with 94 percent support. The new chamber elected in September appears to have strong anticorruption credentials, and does not include the parties of two notorious oligarchs that won seats in the previous elections. The severe austerity measures enacted by the government to ameliorate the country’s fiscal crisis has among other things triggered a mass outmigration, such that Latvia’s population has shrunk to just under 2 million people, from 2.4 million a decade ago.

Since coming to office in mid-2010, Slovakia’s center-right prime minister, Iveta Radičová, has introduced several changes to legislation and policy aimed at increasing transparency and accountability in government, as well as reversing deeply unpopular media legislation passed under the previous administration. However, in October 2011, tensions within the government came to a head when the parliament was asked to support the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) bailout fund using taxes paid by Slovak citizens. In a desperate attempt to reach consensus on the issue, Radičová attached a no-confidence vote to the measure, which failed, causing the government to collapse.

Unpopular public spending cuts in Romania caused the government’s popularity to plummet and the ruling coalition to quarrel over the continuation of strict austerity policies. In December, the coalition advanced plans, with little public consultation, to postpone the June 2012 local elections, allegedly to gain a partisan advantage. This attempted manipulation caused Romania’s electoral process score to decline and fueled the opposition’s calls for the dissolution of the existing government.

Prolonged economic decline has negatively affected the media market in new EU states, particularly in the Baltics. The shrinking advertising budgets of private companies put financial pressure on mass media in Lithuania, which became increasingly dependent on state institutions for support. Allegations also arose of media outlets engaging in extortion schemes in which businesses and politicians were threatened with fabricated negative publicity if they refused to purchase advertising contracts. In Latvia, a lack of ownership transparency caused suspicions that oligarchs were consolidating control over media enterprises. Both Latvia and Estonia have suffered cutbacks in media personnel, affecting the quality and scope of press coverage.

Events in Hungary in 2011 once again demonstrated that the positive trajectory of democratic development cannot be taken for granted, even within the EU. Hungary experienced the most declines of any country in the region for a second year in a row, and the greatest net decline of all the countries covered in this edition of the study, with half-point downgrades in national democratic governance, electoral process, and judicial framework and independence, as well as a smaller downgrade reflecting the new media law that took effect in January 2011. Prime Minister Orbán’s Fidesz party used its parliamentary supermajority to push through a new constitution and changes to the judiciary during the year, further weakening the country’s system of checks and balances. Moreover, a new electoral law redrew parliamentary districts to favor the ruling party, and introduced restrictions that will weaken its opponents, effectively ensuring Fidesz’s continued hold on power. Hungary’s democracy score has steadily declined over the past several years, bringing it closer to Romania and Bulgaria in the category of semiconsolidated democracies.

Despite the challenges to democratic development in the new EU states in 2011, Slovenia and Latvia experienced modest improvements in taking on corruption, and Slovakia improved its independent media score through the aforementioned amendments to its widely criticized Press Act. Poland posted the greatest net improvement, with score increases in national democratic governance and electoral process. In October, for the first time in Poland’s postcommunist history, the incumbent government was reelected, signaling a more stable and mature political system.


The EU continues to exert a positive influence in the western Balkans, with the prospect of EU accession arguably serving as the single greatest motivation for democratic reform in these countries. The candidacy process follows a series of formal steps that gauge the success of efforts to establish democratic institutions and a functioning market economy. However, despite public aspirations for integration, most reforms stagnated in the Balkans during 2011, with multiple declines in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia.

Croatia finalized accession requirements in late 2011 and is on track to join the union in 2013. A controversial new law that bans Serbia from investigating suspected Croatian war criminals, and angry public reactions to an international tribunal’s stiff prison sentences for former Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač, suggest that the country’s strong nationalist tendencies are somewhat at odds with the rule of law. Nevertheless, Croatia’s corruption score improved due to the active prosecution of high-level officials within the ruling party. At the close of 2011, Serbia’s progress was also viewed positively by the EU, which linked the country’s candidacy status to cooperation in the pursuit of accused war criminals, particularly the last remaining fugitives sought by the international tribunal, Ratko Mladić and Goran Hadžić, both of whom were arrested during the year. However, neither Serbia nor Montenegro registered any score changes in Nations in Transit for 2011.

Nearly two decades after the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the wars that ensued, ethnic tensions and sovereignty disputes still handicap the stabilization of national democratic governance in several countries in the region, hindering advancements in other areas of reform. Bosnia and Herzegovina marked its fourth straight year of score deterioration, this time for the parliamentary parties’ persistent failure to form a government. One of the country’s two main constituent entities, the Republika Srpska, continues to deny the legitimacy of central government institutions. Macedonia’s score for national democratic governance also dropped after a year dominated by disputes over the country’s name, the controversial “Skopje 2014” construction projects in the capital, an opposition boycott of the parliament, and stagnation on reforms necessary for EU and NATO accession. Political pressure on and intimidation of the media continued in 2011, pushing down Macedonia’s score for that category as well.

Kosovo experienced a major setback in electoral process due to December 2010 elections that were marred by fraud and 2011 reruns that were boycotted by the majority of voters, demonstrating their lack of trust in the political system. However, Kosovo did improve in the local democratic governance category for its creation of new municipalities, a framework for more sustainable funding sources, and better conditions for the readmission and integration of returnees, which has played a crucial role in advancing talks with the EU on visa liberalization. Reforms introducing a more functional legal basis for the court system improved Kosovo’s score for judicial framework and independence.

No progress was seen in 2011 for Albania, whose tumultuous year seemed to lead it further away from EU candidacy. A high-profile corruption scandal implicating the deputy prime minister triggered antigovernment protests, in which security forces shot and killed four people. Local elections were marred by widespread violations, and a court settlement was required to resolve a partisan dispute over the Tirana mayoral vote, causing Albania’s
electoral process score to decline. The score for judicial framework and independence also worsened due to corrosive political influence and the first assassination of a judge in the country’s history.


Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, three distinct narratives have taken shape in the geographic space between Western Europe and Asia. The first is that of the successful new democracies of Central Europe and the Baltic region. The second pertains to the slowly improving, middle-performing democratic hopefuls in the Balkans. The third, least positive narrative is that of the reconstituted authoritarian regimes of Eurasia, which have adapted themselves to a post-Soviet world while maintaining an effective monopoly on political and economic power. A small subset of countries in this region—Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine—have demonstrated democratic ambitions but have struggled to construct durable democratic institutions. Ukraine, for its part, now appears poised to leave this group.

The deepening repression in autocratic Eurasian states such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia is no longer surprising. Much more worrisome is the multiyear stagnation and increasing reversals in the countries that had presumably crossed a threshold and joined the ranks of established democracies. Hungary is now sorely testing the assumption that such transformations are irreversible, and its experience has cast doubt on the future of potentially more vulnerable states like Latvia, which faces particularly acute economic challenges and ongoing pressure from external powers, and Bulgaria and Romania, which have yet to root out entrenched corruption and continue to confront deep economic and other challenges to consolidating democratic institutions.

There is still a considerable “democracy gap” between the Central European and Baltic states on the one hand, and the authoritarian regimes of Eurasia on the other. And those involved in supporting democracy and human rights have understandably focused their attention on the most execrable abusers of those rights. But now that the high achievers of the past two decades are showing signs of trouble, it is time to take a fresh, clear-eyed look at the deepening challenges to democratic consolidation in Central and Southeastern Europe.

The lessons learned from an effort to return these countries to their former paths would no doubt prove valuable in the event of a future opening among the current autocracies to the east. Perhaps more importantly, such an effort would prevent the tarnishing of the European model and its role in ensuring peace, prosperity, and freedom on the continent. The European idea is already under assault on a number of fronts, and founding EU members are preoccupied with the eurozone’s financial crisis. But a much broader spectrum of threats could emerge if the democratic credentials of the union’s newer and prospective members are allowed to slip much further.

Christopher Walker is vice president for strategy and analysis, and Sylvana Habdank-Kołaczkowska is project director for Nations in Transit. Katherin Machalek, Tyler Roylance, and Katherine Brooks provided critical research and editorial assistance for this essay.